The project started out so simply. I read a brief and humorous poem, by my good friend and colleague, Dr. William Reyer. Part of it is quoted below:
“I’m a little black lizard
I live by the lake.
In the hot summer sun
On a pine stump, I bake.
I will eat a brown cricket
For my mid-day meal
Or if I am lucky,
A fat, juicy snail……”
Over the years, I have enjoyed reading Bill’s poetry very much. His subject matter touches on a number of of wonderful topics, both personal and universal. Years before, we had collaborated on a project, a setting of Bill’s powerful poem, Elijah and the Raven. Dr. Reyer’s text reflected on the mystery of the relationship between Elijah and his God, as described in the Old Testament. Bill’s words were most elegant; the poetic images were challenging. This poem led me to write one of my most accomplished choral works, a piece that was premiered by the Heidelberg Concert Choir, under the direction of Dr. Grant Cook, in 2008.
Skip ahead to 2016. Bill approached me with a simple request. He wanted to present a short voice recital in the spring. Nothing too fancy, he said; just an opportunity to sing some favorite songs for some of his friends. He wanted to enlist my aid as his accompanist, but only if I thought that his voice was acceptable for public performance. I knew that Bill had some vocal study in his background, and I am a great believer in the importance of amateur music-making. For the opportunity of working with Bill again, I was happy to say yes. My wife Joan made one more suggestion: have the program include some new songs, composed by me, featuring poetry by Bill. Perfect!
Bill was happy to collaborate again on words and music; I asked him to send me some short texts that he thought might be conducive to musical settings. The poem above was one of the first examples that he forwarded, a portrait of the world at large, as see through the eyes of a tiny black lizard. This was a different side of Bill, far from the mysteries of God and Elijah, a simple text that was light, whimsical and fun. Two more stanzas round out this charming portrait of one of God’s creatures. I heard music immediately. On a late Thursday afternoon, I set the first half of this short poem. The first draft was completed one day later.
It was nice to take a break from larger projects and work on a song that was simple and small. I asked Bill for some more poems. Before I knew it, two more songs emerged. One is a simple lullaby text, dedicated to a newborn child. A simple Latin phrase unifies all three stanzas: “Amor vincit omni
The next song was based on a rather terse poem posted on Bill’s Facebook site, one that reflected on the historical figure Nat Turner as it also comments on the continuing racial divisions in our country. “Grant us, O Lord, peace in our day,” the poem concludes. This is the mantra, the prayer we must offer, as we attempt to solve our intense differences. My musical rendition of this poem focuses quite a bit of the song’s length on this single phrase.
Bill and I are calling the collective project Simple Songs. Who knows how many of these small wonders will exist before we are through. For now, I delight if finding a new gem by Bill, and providing a musical setting. I’m sure that we will select several of these for Bill’s recital in the spring. More news as this new project develops…..